By Henry Clare
They say that Durham is a bubble – a self-contained world within itself. For the many of the students here, it’s very easy to forget that there is life outside of our small Northern city.
For three or four years, thousands of undergraduates live and breathe Durham. Then, in a blink of an eye, it all comes spiralling to a halt – bringing about one of life’s most daunting questions.
This two-word question might seem simple enough, but in reality it’s nigh on impossible to answer.
It’s one that final year students have been grappling with for months now, with countless careers events and prospectuses being used as preparation for a time when Durham can no longer be called home.
Needless to say, to many graduates, life after Durham will be a life in the city. The four walls of the Bill Bryson Library will be swapped for the comfort of warm, cosy, albeit small, office space, in a rewarding, well-paid job.
Statistics back this assumption up. The Times Top 100 graduate employers list shows that the majority of graduates go into careers in the banking, consultancy and law.
Indeed, many office jobs are as attractive as they are well paid, and the majority of graduates will have the grades and the attributes to achieve immense job satisfaction.
However, for Martha Leahy, a finalist at St. Mary’s College studying Criminology, life after Durham will be about achieving life satisfaction for others, even if it’s at the detriment of her own.
She’s part of an ever-growing brigade of youngsters looking to move in to social work, having enrolled in Frontline’s two-year graduate programme, with a view to becoming a social worker after completing the scheme.
It’s certainly an interesting career path. Although the thought of social purpose is one that will undoubtedly attract many graduates today, that hasn’t always been the case.
The profession has come under attack in recent years, most notably in November 2013 from the then Education Secretary Michael Gove, who claimed that graduates going in to social work provide too many excuses for people’s social deprivation, at the expense of potential solutions.
“In too many cases, social work training involved idealist students being told that the individuals with whom they will work have been disempowered by society”, Mr Gove controversially said in a speech to the NSPCC.
“They will be encouraged to see these individuals as victims of social injustice whose fat is overwhelmingly decreed by the economic forces and inherent inequalities which scar our society.
“This analysis is sadly as widespread as it is pernicious. It robs individuals of the power of agency and breaks the link between and individual’s actions and the consequences.
“It risks explaining away substance abuse, domestic violence and personal irresponsibility, rather than doing away with them”.
However, a year after those comments were made and the concept of post-degree social work has undergone a radical facelift.
Newly created graduates schemes handpick the very best students; giving them an intensive two-year training course before giving them the opportunity to change the lives of some of Britain’s most troubled families.
The rise and rise of such graduate schemes has meant that the profession is quickly becoming one of the most appealing ventures for final year students.
Frontline has led the charge. Having been launched in 2013, the initiative has quickly shot to fame.
Within six weeks of its launch, 4,000 final year students had applied to Frontline’s graduate scheme.
Just under a year later, Frontline displaced Channel 4 in order to reach 76th place in the prestigious Times Top 100 graduate employers list – the first time that a social work employer has ever made the list.
It also ranked above illustrious private sector employers like Santander, Lloyds and the law firm Hogan Lovell, which is a further indicator of its success.
Perceptions towards social work seem to be changing by the second. But why are so many graduates choosing to get involved? For Martha, the opportunity to make a difference to the lives of young people is the most attractive aspect:
“I’m really excited to be given this opportunity to make a positive impact in the lives of children and young people. Most importantly, I expect to develop a greater understanding of issues faced by many vulnerable children in the UK, and to be equipped with skills to advocate for them.
Martha was also quick to praise Frontline’s approach; especially its willingness to give graduates hands on experience of the intricacies associated with the profession.
“I think a large factor involved in the increased interest in social work is that Frontline offers such a unique route into it.
“Similarly to Teach First, Frontline begins with an intensive course over the summer, followed by a great deal of ‘on-the-job’ training, and an option to qualify with a Master’s degree. I imagine that this model is the way that many people like to learn”
The comparison to Teach First is an interesting one. Having been founded in 2002, Teach First has gone on to become one of the most popular routes in to teaching, ranking second in the aforementioned Times Top 100 graduate employers list
Like Frontline and other fast-track schemes, Teach First gives graduates the opportunity to immerse themselves in to their chosen field of work, taking them straight out study and in to their chosen career path.
When talking about the success of Frontline, CEO Josh MacAlister claimed that the company was founded with a similar ethos to that of Teach First, and that his own experiences of the scheme played a crucial in the founding of Frontline:
“After I graduated from Edinburgh, I joined Teach First, and absolutely loved it. I was working in a school in Oldham, and felt as though I was learning something new every day.
“I worked with a lot of kids that were in care, and what immediately became clear was that when children had good social workers, they did far better in school, as they had a better life outlook and were more motivated to do well.
“However, too many kids had social workers that were coming and going all the time. It was very disruptive for them, and had a huge negative impact on them.
“After observing this for a while, I wondered whether the philosophy behind Teach First could apply to social work”.
After writing a 500 word report, MacAlister’s idea was picked up Lord Andrew Adonis, and just six months later Frontline was up and running. Despite his own belief in the project, MacAlister revealed his joy at Frontline’s rapid rise.
“It’s really great news, and a show of confidence from students across the UK that social work can be an attractive path.
“Frontline, in conversation with graduates, sets out the societal issue for children that need social work. If you look at the statistics, the life outcomes of children needing social workers from a young age is very poor, only 7% of those in care go to university.
“The idea is to get graduates interested in societal issues, and to show that they can make a positive difference to another person’s life.
“The first cohort are still here, having all started six weeks ago. Some might stay in social work, and some might go into other areas.
“We want to be one of the biggest graduate employers in the country, and help people to get in to whatever profession they want to go into, whether that’s social work, making their own charity or working in government”.
MacAlister also commented that, although participants in the scheme will be encouraged to pursue a career that attracts them, the fact that more than half of the Teach First participants have gone on to teach professionally bodes well for the future of social work.
The success of Frontline has had a snowball effect on the industry. New players are rapidly entering in to the field, and one of the most notable of these is ‘Think Ahead’, a similar scheme that specialises specifically in mental health.
Like Frontline, Think Ahead was founded as a result of the deficiencies in support for those suffering with mental health issues.
Chief among these is the dichotomy between the ever-growing demand for mental health social workers, and funding cuts by commissioners.
Natalie Acton, the founder of Think Ahead, hopes that the scheme will be able to match the success of Frontline and Teach First when it takes on its first cohort of graduates in 2016.
“I think more and more graduates are seeing that social work is a viable option – and schemes like ours can only serve as encouragement.
“Social work gives graduates a feeling of responsibility and independence, which they struggle to find in other jobs.
“Most students who come out university don’t want to go straight into the office, they want a job that challenges them, that gives them responsibility and independence, and, most importantly, gives them a chance to make a difference”.
The fact that the job gives graduates responsibility cannot be doubted. The decisions made by social workers can have a detrimental effect on their clients, particularly those suffering with issues as sensitive as mental health.
For that reason, Acton points out that schemes like Think Ahead have a duty to give graduates the best training that they possibly can:
“We’re very conscious of the need to support graduates throughout their time working for us.
“Before starting our summer programmes, graduates will work with mental health professional, who will ensure that they understand the work that they are doing”.
“Once they are in their placement, they will be supported and coached by a mental health professional, and a named professor who will help them through any academic issues.
“Of course we also need to give them skills in diagnosis and law, as these are both very important parts of mental health social work”.
Martha isn’t the only Durham student going in to the Frontline next year, with MacAlister pointing out that many of their cohort have come from the University. When Think Ahead launches next year, Acton will also be keen to capitalise on the willingness of Durham students.
Although both MacAlister and Acton point out that no prior experience is required, some practise in volunteering and helping others can be useful when applying.
Perhaps this is the root of the success of Durham students when applying to schemes like Frontline – initiatives like Durham University Charities Kommittee (DUCK) and Student Community Action (SCA) allow students to gain the skills necessary for a career in social work.
Earlier this year, DUCK was named the Student Fundraising Group of the Year at the National Student Fundraising Awards, having donated in excess of £200,000 to charities during the 2013/14 academic year.
Catherine Richardson, Head of Careers, Employability and Enterprise Centre at the University, believes that the skills gained through DUCK and SCA can be applied to any career.
“Organisations like DUCK and SCA help students gain skills which can be applied in any organisation and some specific projects lend themselves to working in support roles across a range of sectors.
Although Martha hasn’t been involved with DUCK or SCA, other university experiences undoubtedly helped her when making her application.
“I’ve volunteered with ChildLine’s school service in Durham for the past couple of years, which involves delivering workshops in local primary schools about different forms of abuse, and where children can go to receive help.
“Greater awareness of these issues has further encouraged me to pursue a career in child protection, and was really helpful during the assessment process for Frontline.
“I know that SCA offers many opportunities to get involved with some fantastic projects, for example Children Achieving Through Student Support (CATSS), which could undoubtedly inspire people to get involved in social work”.
Photographs: Nicola Todhunter and Durham Student’s Union